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Aram_rahit Bhumi


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Nepal is a restless land.

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Aram_rahit Bhumi

  1. 1. LETTER FROM NEPAL Last year, after a decade of violence, Maoist rebels drove through the abolition of Nepal’s long-established monarchy, but all too quickly they themselves fell from power. What chance now for peace and democracy? Isabel Hilton reports from Kathmandu This restless land Over dinner in Kathmandu, my friend was the sidelines, organising demonstrations and becoming increasingly agitated. It was not the strikes and replenishing party coffers through fate of her own business – high-end fashion their own brand of extortion. They had signed design and retail – that concerned her most, a peace agreement in 2006, following a decade though a winter-long electricity shortage that of armed insurgency, and emerged as the largest had blacked out the Nepalese capital for nearly single party in Nepal in the constituent assem- 19 hours a day had crippled it, along with many bly election in April last year. others. Her biggest worry was the fate of the In August, the Maoist leader, Pushpa Kamal business belonging to a Tibetan friend. Dahal, popularly known as Prachanda, was The Tibetan ran a successful furniture fac- appointed prime minister of a coalition gov- tory that gave much-needed work to several ernment. The Maoists remained the dominant dozen employees. One day, 40 armed Maoists party of government until May this year, when turned up at the factory, roughed up some Prachanda tried to sack the head of the Nepali of the workers and made two demands: for army, General Rookmangud Katawal, on the an exorbitant contribution to party funds, and grounds of insubordination. that all the factory workers join the union. It seemed like an unnecessary quarrel to pick, None of the staff wanted to join. The factory given that the general was due to retire four owner, who enjoyed a good relationship with months later. Prachanda, however, chose to his workforce, was equally unenthusiastic. The force the issue of the integration of Maoist “union”, everyone knew, was a device to estab- fighters into what used to be the Royal Nepal lish a Maoist presence in the factory. Once in- Army. The “Royal” was dropped when King stalled, the union would insist on recruiting Gyanendra was deposed in May 2008, but the Maoist cadres to the workforce, whether they army’s attachment to the interests of Nepal’s were trained or not, to ensure that the party’s old ruling class was not lost. Faced with Kata- writ would rule in the enterprise. wal’s reluctance to admit the Maoist combat- The factory owner closed down his opera- ants to the army, Prachanda insisted that the tions and took an unscheduled holiday. When principle of military obedience to civil author- he returned to restart his business, it was with ity was at stake, even though the army had While factions fight a militia, assembled for his protection against pledged loyalty, for the first time in Nepal’s his- over the spoils of power: further Maoist visits. tory, to the elected government. When his co- Nepal has the lowest per capita income in south Since their departure from government early alition partners backed away from the confron- Asia, with 80 per cent of in the summer, after a single, ineffective year tation and the president, Ram Baran Yadav, the population gleaning in power, Nepal’s Maoists have been noisy on countermanded the dismissal, the Maoist-led t a living from the land 34 | NEW STATESMAN | 19 OCTOBER 2009
  3. 3. LETTER FROM NEPAL t government collapsed. Prachanda resigned, for next year; a second dry winter would repeat leaving Nepal in the hands of an unwieldy coali- last winter’s power failures, as the rivers run too tion of 22 out of Nepal’s 24 political parties. low to generate the hydropower on the which The peace process is now in a precarious state. the country depends. Certainly the central elements of the peace ac- Peace has brought no relief from the burden cord – a new constitution to follow the ending of military spending: the current budget in- of the monarchy, and the proposed integration cludes an increase of 27 per cent for a military of the Maoist fighters into the army – have all that already enjoys a larger share of national but stalled. Complaints by the army that many revenues than the collapsing power sector, of the 19,000 fighters were underage and un- agriculture or health. Without the remittances derqualified were fuelled by a leaked and widely sent home by millions of Nepalis working in televised video of Prachanda apparently boast- construction gangs in the Gulf or serving in the ing to his supporters in January 2008 that he British army, Nepal would be bankrupt. had deceived the UN special representative charged with guiding the peace process about Between China and India the size of the movement’s army, and that he In recent weeks, thousands of Maoist support- regarded the integration of the Maoist ranks ers have rallied in Kathmandu against Presi- into the army as a means of politicising the dent Yadav, accusing him of undermining the military. Against this background, settling the authority of the civilian government. Prachan- outstanding accounts of the decade of violence The “fierce one”: Prachanda, the Maoist former PM da has threatened a campaign of disruption – the still-unexplained disappearances and hu- unless the party is allowed to return to govern- man rights violations on both sides – remains Every day there is agitation by one group or ment and the powers of the president are de- a remote prospect. the other, anxious that such promises will be bated in parliament. Such threats merely rein- Mutual suspicions could bring about the forgotten in the horse-trading around the text force suspicions that democracy, even in its outcome that everybody claims not to want – of the new constitution. Following the conflict, imperfect, Nepali form, would not be safe in a return to authoritarian rule, either through there is a new assertiveness on the part of some Maoist hands. the Maoists or following an intervention by powerful minorities, notably the Madhesis A further political problem is Nepal’s grow- the army, which has so far resisted the call to who live in the baked plains of the Terai, terrain ing role as a proxy theatre for the rivalry be- reduce its ranks to a size appropriate for a poor that merges seamlessly with northern India tween Asia’s emerging giants, India and China. nation that is no longer at war. If the Maoists, across an open border. The Terai covers one- In his brief term as prime minister, Prachanda who believe they have earned the right to fifth of Nepal’s territory and contains 70 per ruffled feathers in India by making his first political supremacy through both military and cent of its industry, but armed and militant foreign visit to Beijing rather than to Delhi. Al- electoral success, feel unfairly excluded from groups now call openly for independence from though Nepal’s Maoists have little in common power, a return to force cannot be ruled out. the mountainous parts of the country, with politically with today’s turbocapitalist Chinese, Equally, if the army and its supporters feel that which they feel little in common. Migrants Beijing seems happy to take advantage of the the Maoists’ real game plan is to establish the from the hills, many of them refugees from the invitation to establish a larger presence in the Leninist party-state, it might be moved to backyard of its rival power. “save” democracy. Nepal’s border with Tibet has been a fav- Peace has brought no ourite escape route for Tibetans fleeing their Mosaic of cultures relief from the burden homeland, and the government in Beijing says Democracy is not an easy proposition in Nepal. it suspects Nepal’s large and lively Tibetan exile Many of the country’s political parties – even of military spending community of anti-Chinese activities. Beijing’s the relatively disciplined Maoists – are racked relatively modest investment in Nepal has with internal divisions, and defections are fighting during the insurgency, are harassed in paid dividends in tighter border surveillance common. These tensions are acted out daily in the Terai, both by armed political groups and and stricter controls on the refugees. For India, the constituent assembly, which has set itself by criminal gangs that make a living from kid- at odds with China over their long and still dis- a deadline of next May to complete the blue- napping and extortion. The hill people are not puted border, and anxious about connections print for Nepal’s political future. To do that, it the only victims: factories are also closing as between the Maoists and India’s own Naxalite must choose between a presidential or a prime businessmen flee the troubles. insurgency, the signs of Beijing’s increasing in- ministerial system and determine what degree As the ragged government stumbles on, fluence are deeply unwelcome. of autonomy Nepal’s 100-plus ethnic groups locked in endless negotiations over the minu- For the Nepalese people, sandwiched be- can hope for. tiae of the division of spoils, the people become tween two competing giants, there is little relief. General de Gaulle once remarked that it was more anxious and more impoverished. Nepal Neither the army nor the police, despite gener- impossible to govern a country that has 246 has the lowest per capita income in south Asia, ous budgets, provides protection against dis- different kinds of cheese. Nepal, with 126 lan- with 80 per cent of the population making a affected armed groups. For these violent gangs, guages, presents an even greater challenge. The difficult living from the land. Only 15 per cent as for a corrupt and underpaid bureaucracy, for country’s mosaic of peoples and cultures has have access to electricity and that has become Nepal’s political parties and for the police, citi- been dominated for the past 300 years by the increasingly unreliable. Climate change is al- zens are cash machines, vulnerable to extortion Brahmin and Chhetri castes, which have mo- ready having an impact on the livelihoods of and expected to offer bribes for everyday serv- nopolised power in the army, the economy and some of Nepal’s poorest people, subsistence ices. For these citizens, who have repeatedly REUTERS/SHRUTI SHRESTHA political life. The overthrow of that dominance hill farmers, who are faced with new pests and taken to the streets over the years to demand in favour of a system which would give equal diseases and failing crops. Two million Nepalis, democracy, a state that guarantees security, opportunity to other groups was one of the out of a total population of 28.5 million, cur- equality and opportunity remains a dream. l promises held out to lower-caste Maoist fight- rently receive UN food aid and the government Isabel Hilton is editor of ers by their Brahmin leadership. Many already has asked for twice this number to be included. For an archive of her writing for the NS, visit: feel that the promise has been broken. An unusually dry winter presages a low harvest 36 | NEW STATESMAN | 19 OCTOBER 2009